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Conor Lehane reveals the limited extent of Gary Keegan's involvement with the Cork hurlers

It was considered quite the coup when Kieran Kingston secured the services of the man who revolutionised Irish boxing.

IF YOU TOLD a Cork hurling fan a year ago that they’d be looking forward to an All-Ireland semi-final this Sunday, you likely would have had your pint of Murphy’s confiscated and sent to a lab for examination.

The Rebel recovery has been attributed to numerous factors and figures over the course of a remarkable season; just yesterday, Dublin centre back and captain Liam Rushe explained to The42 how the simple introduction of new blood in key areas, coupled with the Cork forwards’ newfound verve for closing down defenders with a near maniacal fervour, had culminated in a complete transformation from the side we’d seen whimper out of the Championship in the past two seasons.

Others, including Ger Loughnane, Anthony Daly, Michael Duignan, and Kieran Shannon, have either pondered aloud or indeed indicated that Cork’s rebirth can be at least partially accredited to a man who once told the latter that “we can’t be half pregnant” when it comes to making Irish athletes realise a greater potential within themselves.

Gary Keegan is rightly considered the man who revolutionised Irish boxing at the turn of the millennium, having devised a High Performance programme which has yielded almost 50 Senior boxing medals at European, World and Olympic level since 2004 – a year where Ireland’s only Olympic boxer was Andy Lee.

He’s advised both the Dublin footballers under Jim Gavin and the hurlers during their more productive period with Anthony Daly at the helm, as well as spending eight years as Director of what was then the Irish Institute of Sport, and is widely regarded as one of the most astute and forward-thinking sporting minds in the country.

And so when Kieran Kingston confirmed that he had secured the Dublin businessman’s services for his young Cork side this season, it was correctly considered quite the coup.

Keegan, however, is not the key man in Cork’s relative success despite various hypotheses, so says star forward Conor Lehane.

“No, he hasn’t had a huge amount of involvement, no,” the Midleton man tells The42.

“It was just a kind of start-of-the-year thing, really, between just getting the fitness right, getting the training right, getting the way we wanted to play, getting everyone individually, mentally right. It was a load of small factors rather than just one main one.

He was kind of in once or twice at the start of the year, and that was it then.

This isn’t to say Keegan, currently employed as an external High Performance Expert by the IRFU, has borne no influence on Cork’s approach this season.

One of the pillars of his own philosophy, along with ‘performance’ taking precedence over results, is that a team must understand and cultivate its own culture. With the reverse having been incessantly leveled at Cork since 2014, Lehane acknowledges that much of the change this season has been brought upon by a decision to embrace team ethic as opposed to individualism.

“I think it’s just a combination of a load of small little things.

“The way we prepare for every game, we just take it as it comes. We decided on the game we wanted to play and we’ve stuck to it. Everyone takes care of their own patch, their own position, and whatever way the game goes is the way it goes.

“We didn’t go out for personal or selfish reasons, like. We’ve really changed to [focusing on] whatever we can do to help the development of everyone, and then everyone else benefits from that as well.

So it wasn’t so much individual things, it was more being aware of how much more important it is to take care of ourselves for the team, rather than to just take care of yourself to keep yourself on the pitch. That’s probably it.

None of that will change for Sunday’s rematch with Waterford, but Lehane makes no bones about admitting that it still might not be enough, such is sport.

There’s a comfort to be found in knowing you and your team-mates are capable of giving 100%, but an excitement, too, in recognising that your capacity to perform is ever-increasing. Each game brings with it a higher ceiling, a lower floor.

“You just work as hard as you can, and those things will kind of take care of themselves then when the game comes, when crunch time comes. When everyone else is on the same page it works out a little bit better.

But like, that’s just the way it’s gone so far, like. There’s always going to be ups and downs. We’re lucky enough that it’s gone some way okay for us so far. It’s not the finished product yet by any means.

Lehane was speaking in Croke Park after being named Player of the Month for May, his starring role in Cork’s victory over All-Ireland champions Tipp seeing to that.

He also contributed to a recurring feature on The42 GAA Show, where some of the GAA’s leading lights reveal their childhood sporting heroes. Suffice to say the 24-year-old threw quite the curveball.

“When I was younger, in terms of looking up to Cork players, there was obviously the likes of Diarmuid [O'Sullivan] and the O’Connors, Seán Óg and Joe Deane – players like that.

“But I’d say the one I looked up to the most was Eoin Kelly from Tipperary. I remember meeting him in a camp years ago, and since then I just was obsessed with the way he played, and wanted to be just like him. He was probably my main hero growing up.

“Just the way he played: some of the scores over the shoulder, stepping up in the big games as well, like, d’you know? You couldn’t help but admire him.

I did [get stick]. Sure I used to be getting the Tipp jerseys and everything, the number on the back – the whole lot! I’d be trying to get the same helmet and all that, like – do you know when you’re young you’d be doing all that as well, like. Obviously I wouldn’t have been boasting about it too much when it came down to Championship.

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